The Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard
|Book Name:||Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer|
|Author:||Jonathan L. Howard|
|Publisher(s):||Doubleday (US) Headline (UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Horror / Steampunk|
|Release Date:||July 7, 2009 (US) June 11, 2009 (UK)|
“Thrown out of the best universities, excommunicated from all the most popular religions and many of the obscure ones, fresh from his recent engagement in Hell, we present Johannes Cabal, Necromancer!”
— Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer
Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer opens with the title character taking a trip to hell to get his soul back from the devil, having already sold it in exchange for the powers of necromancy. But Satan wants 100 souls in exchange, and he gives Cabal only a year and a demonic carnival with which to win their wager. This should give you a good idea of the novel’s sense of humor. And it’s a good thing that this book does have large doses of black comedy, because beneath that is subtle tragedy.
It’s easy to get readers to like a “good” protagonist. But Cabal puts the “anti” in anti-hero. His ultimate goal is the pinnacle of the necromantic arts: resurrection; and he won’t let anything get in his way. And yet Cabal is actually enjoyable to read about. He’s smart, has a quick wit, and every scene he’s snarky in is fun to read. But he’s also his own worst enemy, and the novel doesn’t make clear whether redemption will ever happen for Cabal. He doesn’t really understand people, and hates those moments when he is most human. I mentioned earlier that this story is a tragicomedy, and Cabal is a tragic figure, but it’s not thrown in our faces. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I really admired the way Howard hints at all that lies beneath Cabal’s sharp exterior.
None of the other characters in the novel feel flat either, with most of the minor characters being memorable. We meet stuffy clerks in hell, serial killers, and the occasional decent human being. After receiving his diabolical carnival, Cabal seeks out the help of his brother, a vampire named Horst, who rightfully blames Cabal for his condition. They are almost mirrors to one another: Horst is the monster on the outside, whereas Cabal is becoming a monster on the inside. Towards the end of the novel we’re introduced to an ex-police officer named Mr. Barrow and his daughter Leonie. Considering how much of an impact they have on the main character and the plot, I feel they should have been introduced earlier in the story, but what time they do spend on stage is well written and they make for interesting hero-antagonists.
The setting is a fantastical version of England, with magic, old gods, and where necromancers are usually hanged on sight. The world is a cross between steampunk and Lovecraft. Cabal keeps Fay in his front garden (that eat anyone who trespasses) but his favorite weapon is a very large revolver. Magic and myth are fading into history, replaced by science; and yet you can still be terrorized by a warlock and his army of escaped mental patients.
The narrative style won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re an anglophile you’ll probably enjoy it. Occasionally there are dense descriptions or paragraphs of “telling” that can slow the story down a bit and sometimes feel too much like the voice-over narration in a movie. Many of these asides are funny all by themselves though, so it’ll be a matter of personal preference whether you enjoy them or not.
There are two other novels in the series with a fourth coming out at the end of September, and while the later books reference those that came earlier, each novel can stand on its own. Plus, if you didn’t want to invest in a novel you’re not sure you’ll like, there are a few short stories to introduce you to the main character and the author’s writing style, and some of them can be found online for free (here and here). With its grim humor, unique protagonist, and interesting storylines, it’s become one of my favorite fantasy series of the decade.